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Couture returns to UFC, faces Lesnar

Randy Couture agreed Tuesday to defend his Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title Nov. 15 against Brock Lesnar as the main event of UFC 91 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas after avoiding an expensive legal battle by settling all outstanding lawsuits with the company.

The 45-year-old Couture, who submitted his resignation to the UFC on Oct. 11 in a bid to force a fight with ex-PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, said he was satisfied with the legal resolution and longed to resume his fighting career.

It was a resounding victory for the UFC and its outspoken president, Dana White, as Couture extended his deal from two fights to three without a guaranteed bout with Emelianenko. And the match between Couture and Lesnar, the former WWE champion, could be the most lucrative in the history of the company: White said he expects the fight to draw between 1.2 million and 1.5 million pay-per-view buys, which would shatter the record of 1.05 million set with UFC 66. Accordingly, White moved UFC 91 from Portland, Ore., to Las Vegas because of concerns that Portland did not offer sufficient hotel rooms and flights.

Couture sat next to White in the UFC president’s Las Vegas office as they spoke Tuesday on a media conference call to announce the settlement. Couture said he was satisfied that his concerns – which prompted him to say at the time of his resignation that he was “swimming upstream” in his battles against UFC management – had been resolved.

“We’ve cleared the air and we’ve addressed a lot of those issues,” Couture said. “We’re both at a different place and both the company and myself are trying to move forward. I think we understand each other and, certainly, I would much rather fight in the octagon than anywhere else.”

Among the issues that led to Couture’s resignation were a dispute over his ancillary rights – which deal with the ability to market himself – and the UFC’s demand that it own Couture’s image in perpetuity.

White declined to specify how the deal was reached and instead took a celebratory tack. He said the Couture-Lesnar fight will be for the heavyweight title, with the winner of the Dec. 27 fight between interim champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir to face the Couture-Lesnar winner for the outright belt sometime in 2009.

“It will be champion vs. champion,” White said.

After Couture’s resignation, the UFC sanctioned a bout between Nogueira and Tim Sylvia at February’s UFC 81 for the interim title. Nogueira won on a third-round submission.

The earliest Couture could have fought Emelianenko, the consensus top heavyweight in the world, was the middle of 2009, and even then complications put a match in doubt. The Russian is signed to two contracts, his primary one with M-1, led by his manager, Vadim Finkelstein. But Emelianenko has two more fights on a contract with Affliction Entertainment for any bout in the United States.

Affliction Entertainment vice president Tom Atencio said Tuesday he is finalizing an extension that would bind Emelianenko to Affliction through 2012.

“Randy has had a lot of problems with the UFC, but I’m happy there is light at the end of the tunnel and it appears he’s going to fight again before long,” Atencio said.

Atencio said he had no issue with a co-promotion with the UFC for a Couture-Emelianenko main event, but said he doubted the UFC would be interested in such a proposition.

He also denied White’s suggestions that Affliction is on the verge of collapse and that it could open the door for a Couture-Emelianenko fight in the UFC. Atencio said Affliction expects to turn a profit, or at the worst break even, after two more fight cards.

Lesnar, largely ignored for much of the 70-minute call, got irritated at the steady stream of questions regarding Emelianenko and lashed out at the media.

“I’m hearing all this talk about Fedor Emelianenko, but who gives a (expletive) about Fedor?” said Lesnar, who gets the title shot in just his fourth pro mixed martial arts match. “I don’t care. I’m fighting Randy Couture and that’s what this press conference is about. I don’t give a damn about Fedor. I’m tired of hearing about (expletive) Fedor. All right? Randy Couture is fighting Brock Lesnar Nov. 15. His No. 1 concern should be Brock Lesnar. And Dana White could care less about Fedor.”

White agreed and said he had been a frequent critic of Emelianenko – who has fought only five times since the beginning of 2006 – because of the perception that he faces weak competition.

He said he harbored no hard feelings toward Couture and would try to make a fight with Emelianenko if Emelianenko becomes a free agent. He stressed that the UFC would not get involved with Emelianenko until he was free and clear.

But he also said Emelianenko is a larger-than-life figure primarily because of the media. “Fedor is completely (expletive) irrelevant,” White said. “Completely.”

“Fedor is completely (expletive) irrelevant,” White said. “Completely.”

At the same time, White said he would try to make a fight with Emelianenko if Emelianenko becomes a free agent and that he harbors no ill feelings toward Couture, who, suddenly, is relevant again and could make $3 million if the fight does 1 million pay-per-view buys, as White anticipates.

Couture, whose three heavyweight title reigns and two stints as light heavyweight champ make him the only five-time kingpin in UFC history, said he was relieved to finally concentrate on fighting and not legal issues.

“It feels pretty damn good,” Couture said. “I feel like I’ve been walking around under a black cloud for the last year. To kind of have the clouds dissipate and see a little sunshine for a change is pretty nice.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008